After just six months, The Peasant & the Pear feels like the new fulcrum for the plush restaurant scene that crowds Hartz Avenue. Danville has embraced chef-owner Rod Worth's classic California cuisine the way Berkeley might embrace an artisan salumi shop: with a passion that's as much about the scene as the food itself.
You remember California cuisine from the 1980s: fruit-strewn pizzas, entrée salads studded with cheese and nuts and sliced chicken breast, and lots and lots of baked goat cheese. Oh, and quiche. When he's on, Worth perfectly captures the bright, easygoing quality of a dish like quiche and restores it as something fresh and viable.
The restaurant unfolds in the long, rambling space originally carved out by the doomed small-plates bistro Louka. It's a space that turns its face to the Clock Tower Center's teeming parking lot, opens unexpectedly onto a comfortable gold-and-terra-cotta dining room, and runs past a sweet little bar to end in a courtyard quietly set with tables.
This is a second incarnation for The Peasant & the Pear which helps explain its fruity-sounding name. The original opened in 2004 as an ambitious sandwich shop in a slightly gritty San Ramon strip mall. Worth fused a chef's sensibility with the blue-collar personality of its surroundings, touching up burly diner classics like Philly cheese steaks and BLTs with a fresh palette of California-Mediterranean flavors. That's the peasant part: Worth's emphasis on rustic Mediterranean flavors. The pear is a nod to San Ramon's agricultural past, specifically the vast orchards that once flocked the Tri-Valley. Worth, in other words, is attempting to evoke a bit of slow-food credibility rooted in an idealized local landscape.
Okay, so the name flirts with hubris, especially for a sandwich shop. But in the subsequent restaurant, Worth's aspirations can seem effortless in the best dishes, anyway. Take the bruschetta, three toasts whose cheese-driven toppings change regularly. They couldn't have tasted brighter: a slab of Brie shingled with green apple, wisps of Serrano ham, and a moist triangle of sharp-tasting Manchego, and olive-oil-shiny dried tomatoes flecked with Parmesan Reggiano shavings. Nothing particularly clever about any one combination, but the tastes were vivid enough to help them all rise above cliché.
Like the bruschetta, the thin-crust Harvest pizza perfectly integrated random elements to create surprise. Tiny squares of applewood-smoked bacon, semicrispy dried currants, pungent rosemary, and browned mozzarella shreds came together in a single flavor, a woodsy, aromatic, and darkly sweet impression that came off as inspired.
What I like about the Peasant's pizza crusts is that they're unselfconsciously crackery, with none of the showy rusticity of most fashionable thin crusts. Even under less original toppings on the California, for instance, with its canned artichoke hearts, dried tomatoes, and grated mozzarella the crust makes what's on top seem a bit more interesting.
Yet sometimes when the kitchen swerves to avoid clichés, the results are unsatisfying, or worse. A wilted baby spinach salad with bacon, Gorgonzola, tomatoes, and grilled peaches never came together. Under a big old blast of balsamic and red-wine vinegars, the spinach leaves clumped together like wet feathers, and the other ingredients stubbornly refused to blend in. Arranged in a circle around the rim of the plate, the peach chunks had a funny, weedy taste but no discernible charring. Hunks of underripe tomatoes were less than unnecessary: They sank an already clunky salad.
The sandwiches were lackluster at best. After building a following on sandwiches at the old San Ramon Peasant, Worth should consider jettisoning all but a few of the dozen he brought with him to Danville. Grand-Mère (French for grandmother) combines slices of turkey with Brie and green apple under a little slick of mayonnaise. But grandma proved tired: The turkey was wan and lunchmeaty, and nothing else had enough flavor to carry it.
A muscular French dip was equally problematic. Salty, thin-sliced sirloin tasted faded from reheating, and its big slab of a roll from Berkeley's Metropolis Bakery (it showed up on both sandwiches) was dry, airy, and way too thick. But a cup of brackish, processed-tasting jus was the biggest disappointment without reframing it with lighter or fresher-tasting ingredients, an ordinary cafeteria sandwich is just an ordinary cafeteria sandwich, even if the dill-flecked red-skinned potato salad and skinny, salty french fries (your choice) soared way above cafeteria.
I first reviewed the Peasant for The Contra Costa Times, just weeks after the restaurant rolled out its kitchen mats in Danville. It seemed then that the Peasant wasn't fully comfortable with the new space it still felt like a sandwich shop trying to execute a complex dinner menu, but still more competent with lunch. Now, it's the dinner entrées that show off the kitchen's rock-solid skills.
Take the suave Paella Valenciana, more a saffron-tinged, pea-studded risotto than straight-up pilaf. Its heavy jumble of fat, moist prawns, sweet Manila clams, mussels, and white-fleshed fish were fresh, and nothing was overcooked. Grilled Santa Maria tri-tip brought a stack of thick, pink slices plastered with mild chile-powder rub. The slices slosh around in a dark sauce laced with a discreet hit of molasses, next to a stiff pile of garlic-studded mashed red potatoes and a fantastically sugary ear of Brentwood corn. Even though the meat seemed baked with a deficit of blackened, crusty edges and smoky flavors it was delicious. And tender.
As a culinary student, Rod Worth wrangled an internship with San Francisco chef Loretta Keller at the now-defunct Bizou (Keller's Coco500 now inhabits the space). Whatever ideas he may have picked up in the kitchen, Worth seems to have inherited her knack for creating restaurants that work on the level of public amenity, places that feel so right in their locations it's as if they'd always been there. Worth makes it personal, working the dining room as if he's hosting a cocktail party, stopping at every table to comment on what you're eating. He makes you feel welcome.
No surprise that the Peasant feels rooted in its community in a way even Keller might envy. That, indeed, may be Worth's biggest accomplishment: California cuisine is a movement that aspires to feel thoroughly local, and in Danville, Worth is making it so.
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